Today, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) announced its ninth round of seed grants to support innovative research projects at MIT. The grants are designed to fund research efforts that tackle challenges related to water and food for human use, with the ultimate goal of creating meaningful impact as the world population continues to grow and the planet undergoes significant climate and environmental changes.
Ten new projects led by 15 researchers from seven different departments will be supported this year. The projects address a range of challenges by employing advanced materials, technology innovations, and new approaches to resource management. The new projects aim to remove harmful chemicals from water sources, develop monitoring and other systems to help manage various aquaculture industries, optimize water purification materials, and more.
“The seed grant program is J-WAFS’ flagship grant initiative,” says J-WAFS executive director Renee J. Robins. “The funding is intended to spur groundbreaking MIT research addressing complex issues that are challenging our water and food systems. The 10 projects selected this year show great promise, and we look forward to the progress and accomplishments these talented researchers will make,” she adds.
The 2023 J-WAFS seed grant researchers and their projects are:
Sara Beery, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), is building the first completely automated system to estimate the size of salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest (PNW).
Salmon are a keystone species in the PNW, feeding human populations for the last 7,500 years at least. However, overfishing, habitat loss, and climate change threaten extinction of salmon populations across the region. Accurate salmon counts during their seasonal migration to their natal river to spawn are essential for fisheries’ regulation and management but are limited by human capacity. Fish population monitoring is a widespread challenge in the United States and worldwide. Beery and her team are working to build a system that will provide a detailed picture of the state of salmon populations in unprecedented, spatial, and temporal resolution by combining sonar sensors and computer vision and machine learning (CVML) techniques. The sonar will capture individual fish as they swim upstream and CVML will train accurate algorithms to interpret the sonar video for detecting, tracking, and counting fish automatically while adapting to changing river conditions and fish densities.
Another aquaculture project is being led by Michael Triantafyllou, the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Robert Vincent, the assistant director at MIT’s Sea Grant Program. They are working with Otto Cordero, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, to control harmful bacteria blooms in aquaculture algae feed production.
Aquaculture in the United States represents a $1.5 billion industry annually and helps support 1.7 million jobs, yet many American hatcheries are not able to keep up with demand. One barrier to aquaculture production is the high degree of variability in survival rates, most likely caused by a poorly controlled microbiome that leads to bacterial infections and sub-optimal feed efficiency. Triantafyllou, Vincent, and Cordero plan to monitor the microbiome composition of a shellfish hatchery in order to identify possible causing agents of mortality, as well as beneficial microbes. They hope to pair microbe data with detail phenotypic information about the animal population to generate rapid diagnostic tests and explore the potential for microbiome therapies to protect larvae and prevent future outbreaks. The researchers plan to transfer their findings and technology to the local and regional aquaculture community to ensure healthy aquaculture production that will support the expansion of the U.S. aquaculture industry.
David Des Marais is the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. His 2023 J-WAFS project seeks to understand plant growth responses to elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, in the hopes of identifying breeding strategies that maximize crop yield under future CO2 scenarios.
Today’s crop plants experience higher atmospheric CO2 than 20 or 30 years ago. Crops such as wheat, oat, barley, and rice typically increase their growth rate and biomass when grown at experimentally elevated atmospheric CO2. This is known as the so-called “CO2 fertilization effect.” However, not all plant species respond to rising atmospheric CO2 with increased growth, and for the ones that do, increased growth doesn’t necessarily correspond to increased crop yield. Using specially built plant growth chambers that can control the concentration of CO2, Des Marais will explore how CO2 availability impacts the development of tillers (branches) in the grass species Brachypodium. He will study how gene expression controls tiller development, and whether this is affected by the growing environment. The tillering response refers to how many branches a plant produces, which sets a limit on how much grain it can yield. Therefore, optimizing the tillering response to elevated CO2 could greatly increase yield. Des Marais will also look at the complete genome sequence of Brachypodium, wheat, oat, and barley to help identify genes relevant for branch growth.
Darcy McRose, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is researching whether a combination of plant metabolites and soil bacteria can be used to make mineral-associated phosphorus more bioavailable.
The nutrient phosphorus is essential for agricultural plant growth, but when added as a fertilizer, phosphorus sticks to the surface of soil minerals, decreasing bioavailability, limiting plant growth, and accumulating residual phosphorus. Heavily fertilized agricultural soils often harbor large reservoirs of this type of mineral-associated “legacy” phosphorus. Redox transformations are one chemical process that can liberate mineral-associated phosphorus. However, this needs to be carefully controlled, as overly mobile phosphorus can lead to runoff and pollution of natural waters. Ideally, phosphorus would be made bioavailable when plants need it and immobile when they don’t. Many plants make small metabolites called coumarins that might be able to solubilize mineral-adsorbed phosphorus and be activated and inactivated under different conditions. McRose will use laboratory experiments to determine whether a combination of plant metabolites and soil bacteria can be used as a highly efficient and tunable system for phosphorus solubilization. She also aims to develop an imaging platform to investigate exchanges of phosphorus between plants and soil microbes.
Many of the 2023 seed grants will support innovative technologies to monitor, quantify, and remediate various kinds of pollutants found in water. Two of the new projects address the problem of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), human-made chemicals that have recently emerged as a global health threat. Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS are used in many manufacturing processes. These chemicals are known to cause significant health issues including cancer, and they have become pervasive in soil, dust, air, groundwater, and drinking water. Unfortunately, the physical and chemical properties of PFAS render them difficult to detect and remove.
Aristide Gumyusenge, the Merton C. Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, is using metal-organic frameworks for low-cost sensing and capture of PFAS. Most metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are synthesized as particles, which complicates their high accuracy sensing performance due to defects such as intergranular boundaries. Thin, film-based electronic devices could enable the use of MOFs for many applications, especially chemical sensing. Gumyusenge’s project aims to design test kits based on two-dimensional conductive MOF films for detecting PFAS in drinking water. In early demonstrations, Gumyusenge and his team showed that these MOF films can sense PFAS at low concentrations. They will continue to iterate using a computation-guided approach to tune sensitivity and selectivity of the kits with the goal of deploying them in real-world scenarios.
Carlos Portela, the Brit (1961) and Alex (1949) d’Arbeloff Career Development Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Ariel Furst, the Cook Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, are building novel architected materials to act as filters for the removal of PFAS from water. Portela and Furst will design and fabricate nanoscale materials that use activated carbon and porous polymers to create a physical adsorption system. They will engineer the materials to have tunable porosities and morphologies that can maximize interactions between contaminated water and functionalized surfaces, while providing a mechanically robust system.
Rohit Karnik is a Tata Professor and interim co-department head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is working on another technology, his based on microbead sensors, to rapidly measure and monitor trace contaminants in water.
Water pollution from both biological and chemical contaminants contributes to an estimated 1.36 million deaths annually. Chemical contaminants include pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals like lead, and compounds used in manufacturing. These emerging contaminants can be found throughout the environment, including in water supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States sets recommended water quality standards, but states are responsible for developing their own monitoring criteria and systems, which must be approved by the EPA every three years. However, the availability of data on regulated chemicals and on candidate pollutants is limited by current testing methods that are either insensitive or expensive and laboratory-based, requiring trained scientists and technicians. Karnik’s project proposes a simple, self-contained, portable system for monitoring trace and emerging pollutants in water, making it suitable for field studies. The concept is based on multiplexed microbead-based sensors that use thermal or gravitational actuation to generate a signal. His proposed sandwich assay, a testing format that is appealing for environmental sensing, will enable both single-use and continuous monitoring. The hope is that the bead-based assays will increase the ease and reach of detecting and quantifying trace contaminants in water for both personal and industrial scale applications.
Alexander Radosevich, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry, are teaming up to create rapid, cost-effective, and reliable techniques for on-site arsenic detection in water.
Arsenic contamination of groundwater is a problem that affects as many as 500 million people worldwide. Arsenic poisoning can lead to a range of severe health problems from cancer to cardiovascular and neurological impacts. Both the EPA and the World Health Organization have established that 10 parts per billion is a practical threshold for arsenic in drinking water, but measuring arsenic in water at such low levels is challenging, especially in resource-limited environments where access to sensitive laboratory equipment may not be readily accessible. Radosevich and Swager plan to develop reaction-based chemical sensors that bind and extract electrons from aqueous arsenic. In this way, they will exploit the inherent reactivity of aqueous arsenic to selectively detect and quantify it. This work will establish the chemical basis for a new method of detecting trace arsenic in drinking water.
Rajeev Ram is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. His J-WAFS research will advance a robust technology for monitoring nitrogen-containing pollutants, which threaten over 15,000 bodies of water in the United States alone.
Nitrogen in the form of nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and urea can run off from agricultural fertilizer and lead to harmful algal blooms that jeopardize human health. Unfortunately, monitoring these contaminants in the environment is challenging, as sensors are difficult to maintain and expensive to deploy. Ram and his students will work to establish limits of detection for nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and urea in environmental, industrial, and agricultural samples using swept-source Raman spectroscopy. Swept-source Raman spectroscopy is a method of detecting the presence of a chemical by using a tunable, single mode laser that illuminates a sample. This method does not require costly, high-power lasers or a spectrometer. Ram will then develop and demonstrate a portable system that is capable of achieving chemical specificity in complex, natural environments. Data generated by such a system should help regulate polluters and guide remediation.
Kripa Varanasi, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Angela Belcher, the James Mason Crafts Professor and head of the Department of Biological Engineering, will join forces to develop an affordable water disinfection technology that selectively identifies, adsorbs, and kills “superbugs” in domestic and industrial wastewater.
Recent research predicts that antibiotic-resistance bacteria (superbugs) will result in $100 trillion in health care expenses and 10 million deaths annually by 2050. The prevalence of superbugs in our water systems has increased due to corroded pipes, contamination, and climate change. Current drinking water disinfection technologies are designed to kill all types of bacteria before human consumption. However, for certain domestic and industrial applications there is a need to protect the good bacteria required for ecological processes that contribute to soil and plant health. Varanasi and Belcher will combine material, biological, process, and system engineering principles to design a sponge-based water disinfection technology that can identify and destroy harmful bacteria while leaving the good bacteria unharmed. By modifying the sponge surface with specialized nanomaterials, their approach will be able to kill superbugs faster and more efficiently. The sponge filters can be deployed under very low pressure, making them an affordable technology, especially in resource-constrained communities.
In addition to the 10 seed grant projects, J-WAFS will also fund a research initiative led by Greg Sixt. Sixt is the research manager for climate and food systems at J-WAFS, and the director of the J-WAFS-led Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance. His project focuses on the Lake Victoria Basin (LVB) of East Africa. The second-largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Victoria straddles three countries (Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya) and has a catchment area that encompasses two more (Rwanda and Burundi). Sixt will collaborate with Michael Hauser of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, and Paul Kariuki, of the Lake Victoria Basin Commission.
The group will study how to adapt food systems to climate change in the Lake Victoria Basin. The basin is facing a range of climate threats that could significantly impact livelihoods and food systems in the expansive region. For example, extreme weather events like droughts and floods are negatively affecting agricultural production and freshwater resources. Across the LVB, current approaches to land and water management are unsustainable and threaten future food and water security. The Lake Victoria Basin Commission (LVBC), a specialized institution of the East African Community, wants to play a more vital role in coordinating transboundary land and water management to support transitions toward more resilient, sustainable, and equitable food systems. The primary goal of this research will be to support the LVBC’s transboundary land and water management efforts, specifically as they relate to sustainability and climate change adaptation in food systems. The research team will work with key stakeholders in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania to identify specific capacity needs to facilitate land and water management transitions. The two-year project will produce actionable recommendations to the LVBC.